Overseas volunteering: what’s the debate about?

This post was originally written by Livi Shaw for the London School of Economics, who have full copyright. See the original post.

One of the biggest questions rippling through the voluntary sector currently, is whether or not overseas volunteering is a good thing; is it sustainable, is it needed; is it ethical? Maybe these are questions you’re familiar with, and the terms ‘voluntourism’, or ‘slum tourism’ aren’t new to you. Whether they are new or not, this blog aims to highlight the key arguments for and against international volunteering.

Before we get started, it’s worth mentioning that the LSE Volunteer Centre believes in the value of responsible volunteering both in the UK and overseas. Sometimes cynically dubbed as a rite of passage, volunteering overseas that takes place either before, during or after university can be an eye-opening and enriching experience of great benefit to both the receiving community and volunteer. But sadly it can also be a means for the wrong people to make a ‘quick buck’, and at its worst put local communities and volunteers at risk. However, it’s important not to think of all overseas volunteering projects as the same.Whilst this blog discusses criticisms which are prominent in the sector, these negative concerns arise almost solely with irresponsible volunteering companies or projects. By choosing the right project and organisation and asking the right questions, you’ll go a long way mitigating these ‘cons’ and in turn become part of a much bigger positive impact.

Potential issues

Volunteers first, communities second
Volunteering overseas is growing in popularity. A quick Google search will testify to this, searching ‘I want to volunteer overseas’ draws over 12 million hits. Many companies have sprung up offering every project you could imagine, in every corner of almost every continent. This clearly sounds like a good thing and and in principle, it is. Altruism is viewed as a healthy and natural motivator for volunteering. However, an increase in demand for volunteer projects can lead to projects being driven by volunteer desires rather than the needs of the communities themselves.

Top-down community projects, which are created to cater for volunteer demand can be empty façades created simply to help you part with your cash and feel good about it. Projects such as these are negative and disheartening for the volunteer, but more seriously can cause real damage to the very communities the volunteer aims to help: the popular desire to volunteer with children, in orphanages particularly, has been linked to child trafficking in Cambodia. While instincts to want to help and volunteer with vulnerable children are natural, the new ‘business’ capitalising on this instinct is not.

Volunteer-centric, short-term placements can create an ever revolving door of volunteers which can reduce impact as new arrivals appear, each moving on as soon as they have finished a placement. Moreover, introducing volunteers for short periods of time to vulnerable children is unethical.

Clever marketing from clever companies

Trying to make sense of overseas volunteering can be confusing and the well-meant aims and aspirations of the volunteer can quickly be distorted. Large money making companies are often the ones who can shout louder and therefore occupy a more visible and well ‘branded’ space in the market. Smaller, grassroots organisations might not a have Marketing Officer, let alone a department.

Picture this: someone has a desire to travel overseas and support a project in a developing country; they look online and quickly find an organisation on the first page of their internet search which has global reach and offers the type of voluntary work that they were looking for. This person starts to read copy on the website about how their three weeks can change the world and how they should ‘book now’ for a discount. A process like this sets false expectations and gives overseas volunteering a package-holiday make-over: where you can ‘book’ and ‘buy’. This transactional narrative sends a message; a well-meaning intention can quickly morph into a consumer desire. It puts the potential volunteer off from having to complete further research or write a challenging application. Volunteering isn’t something you should be able walk into. If you can’t ‘walk into it’ in the UK, why should you be able to abroad? Ask yourself whether you could turn up at a school and be allowed to teach a class unattended or left alone with vulnerable orphans with no security checks. Responsible projects, especially those involving vulnerable adults or children should involve security checks and due diligence for the protection and safety of both volunteer and community.

The best thing for a volunteer to be met with when they begin to search online and find an interesting organisation is honesty and transparency: transparency about where their impact is and where their fundraising money goes. Honesty throughout the application and recruitment process which should encourage the volunteer to question why they want to volunteer at that organisation, consider what skills they can bring, and assess what challenges they might face.

Choosing the right projects/organisation

Communities first, volunteers first
While the top down models mentioned above can stifle development and harm communities, get the balance right and things can flourish. When volunteers arrive to work on a project in response to the community’s own request, to take part in a community driven and owned project: great things can grow. Without forcing outsider perspectives on how things should be done, local cultures and personalities can be maintained and respected and in turn, volunteers can be welcomed into a community where their presence does not displace locals from their jobs.

This shift in dynamic fosters a greater ripple of impact, as positive relations at grass level filter back. By putting communities first, volunteers are likely to have a more meaningful personal journey and experience. This positive experience will be carried back by the volunteer to their home country, where they can continue to inform those at home about their trip or perhaps begin a campaign at home to exert pressure on relevant policy.

It’s possible therefore, that when voluntary projects start with communities, there is the opportunity for greater, more positive and meaningful networks to spark, creating ‘global advocacy networks‘.

Global citizens in a big world

Volunteering abroad shows recognition that a world exists beyond your own country’s borders. It demonstrates a willingness to become part of a global community. It encourages interconnectedness and embraces difference and positive change.

There’s no denying that it’s a complex market and finding the right organisation to go abroad with is a challenge. It might feel easier to turn your back on your desire to volunteer overseas but think carefully before you do this. There are many genuine projects, that are sustainable and community driven which hugely benefit from the skills and time you are looking to provide. If you decide to ‘boycott’ the sector so to speak, you will be rejecting the well run projects along with the poorly run. All that needs to be done, is a little more savvy research, question asking, and assessment of both your motivations for going, and the projects motivations, and reasons for needing you there.


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